I recently had the opportunity to speak with Australian composer Stefan Gregory about his work on the Netflix film The Dig. Gregory makes his major feature film score debut with this Netflix drama, based on the novel of the same name by John Preston. Ralph Fiennes stars in the film as real-life excavator Basil Brown, who until recent years was uncredited for his work in unearthing the fossil of an Anglo-Saxon wooden ship on a young widow’s (Carey Mulligan) estate. With this project, Stefan makes the transition to film scoring from the world of composing and sound design for theatre. He studied mathematics in college, but his passion for music (mainly Jazz) overtook and led to him pursuing a career in writing music for theatre productions.
Enjoy our conversation about The Dig!
How did you get started as a composer?
Improvising and composing were part of how I learnt music from a young age. My dad was a folk musician. My first paid gig was through a friend who worked in theatre, scoring a production of Hamlet for $500 which featured classical banjo and cello.
What was it like making the leap from composing for the theatre to composing for film? Was it a big difference?
It was fairly straight forward, the basic ideas are the same in film and theatre – support the story and the visual world, don’t get in the way of the text, find something that’s missing from the story that you can tell with the music. One difference is that theatre music sometimes needs to be a little bit flexible as the timing can change every night, whereas film music needs to be precise.
There are some subtler differences that are hard to put into words – something about the way we interpret film as truth, because it’s based in photography, even though the footsteps you’re hearing are probably foley. In theatre, we always know it’s fake, because we can look up and see the stage lights and the proscenium arch, so it relies more on the imagination. This changes the way music is interpreted. If you use certain filmic tropes in theatre, they might come across as cheesy or the audience might feel they’re being manipulated, which turns them off. Yet those same tropes work in film, or actually they’re essential because they’re part of the grammar of film. But all this is mostly very subtle.
Did it help that you were working with director Simon Stone, given that you’ve collaborated for a decade together? I have to imagine that would help with any transition from theatre to film.
It does really help to know you director well, as they are your main collaborator. Another flipped way to look at it is: it helps to work with directors whose philosophy and aesthetic you share, and then you’ll end up working together for a decade!
How did you decide on the overall sound for The Dig? It’s not how I imagined a film about an archaeological dig would sound, though I do love the intimacy of the music. I’m also curious about one thing: I read that your initial idea was to create music of the era. What, specifically would that have sounded like? I know you ultimately didn’t go in that direction but I’m curious as to how it differed from what you did go with.
We initially talked about referencing orchestral music of the period, and I did a lot of work on that before I saw the edit. However most of those ideas didn’t seem to work when we put them to picture – the contemporary camera and editing language seemed to beg for a more contemporary score. I avoided using piano for quite a while but eventually I relinquished, and that really helped unlock the whole sound for me. I guess there’s a reason it’s used so much. The strings and orchestra were great for the landscape but piano gave it the intimacy and human touch it needed.
On a related note, when you decided what the film would sound like, where did you start with composing the score? Was it with a single theme that expanded outward or was it more organic than that?
In this case it was a piano piece I wrote that was a breakthrough for me, the tone and style seem right and it suddenly became clear what sort of compositional world was going to work. It wasn’t the theme itself, but certain harmonic ideas in it that I ran with, and the simplicity of the melody. Interestingly, that particular piano piece was cut when there was a big change in the edit, as it resulted in the whole film feeling slightly faster and so that piece was now too languid.
How much time did you have to work on The Dig? Were you impacted by the pandemic? If so, how did you work around it with the recording process?
I was brought on before the shoot and watched the daily rushes. By the time I got properly started though, and had seen rough cut, I think I had about 3 to 4 months to write it. This coincided with the first wave of the pandemic in the UK, so in the middle of the process I and my pregnant partner and 3 year old daughter made the decision to come back to Australia. We had already sent my mother home as a precautionary, who had been helping us with child minding. My partner was now confined to bed with morning sickness, so it was becoming a challenge for me caring for my family and writing my first feature score at the same time. When we arrived back in Sydney on one of the last easily available flights we had to stay on a remote bushland property which turned out not to have phone, internet or even hot water at first. No-one would come to fix the internet and phone for weeks as everyone was in lockdown. It was a beautiful landscape however, and there was a magnificent view of a large river, which was inspiring for the music. The process of collaboration became difficult – I had to drive up a dirt track in a four-wheel drive and upload files over 4G to the director in Vienna.
Then when it came to recording, no orchestras were open for business. Eventually Iceland opened up, and we were lucky to have a fantastic orchestra and team over there who were able to provide online streaming of the session. There were people listening in from all over the world – Sydney, New York, London, Quito and Vienna – to a small studio in a picturesque coastal town a few hours east of Reykjavik. The sessions began at about 8pm Sydney time and went to about 7am. I was a bit tired by the end!
One question that I can’t get off my mind is, and forgive me if this comes out wrong, did you write some of this music to “mimic” what an archaeologist does? A lot of the smaller, more delicate moments remind me of the gentle brushing and probing that an archaeologist has to do to remove these precious artifacts from the ground, and I was wondering if that was done on purpose.
Haha! I love this observation. It wasn’t quite as deliberate as that, but it was scored to picture so probably something was going on in my subconscious.
What’s one thing you hope viewers take away with them when they watch The Dig and hear your score?
I hope they hear the score as part of the cohesive whole experience of the film, and don’t think about it too much – all the elements of film working together sympathetically. As far as the experience, it will resonate differently with different people, and everyone will find something slightly different in it. Certainly there are some big themes in there; life, death, time, earth, legacy, love.
Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?
A few. I like the montage that starts just after the Piggots arrive, and continues under Basil showing little Robert the stars through a telescope, and cuts to the misty morning. I also like the section after they’ve pulled the body from the plane crash, with the sunset and Rory and Peggy – it feels slightly unexpected musically to me.
Thank you again for taking the time to talk about your work on The Dig.
Thank you for your questions!
A big thank you to Stefan Gregory for taking the time to speak with me about his work on The Dig. You can check out the film on Netflix!
Have a great day!
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